ANALYSIS: She has tried pandering. Now is the time for Theresa May to stand up to Donald Trump
A free trade deal with the US has become the totem for Brexit, the prize at the end of a winding and complicated road.
Donald Trump has all-but put an end to that dream by saying the Chequers agreement has “probably killed” any hopes of it taking place.
Sir Alan Duncan, the Foreign Office minister, tried to calm the waters this morning, telling the Today programme that Trump’s words, in an interview with the Sun, came before the (comical) release of the Government’s white paper on Brexit. When he’s across the detail, he suggested, Trump will change his mind.
Trump is many things, but a stickler for detail he is not.
The nature of his Sun interview should be of no surprise. Looking at the bigger picture, it is truly astonishing for a US President to be so dismissive of a British counterpart and their agenda while on a foreign visit. But these are not normal times, and for it to have come from Trump is of no real shock.
He poses one of the most fascinating diplomatic challenges of recent years. In the wake of Brexit, May, in full knowledge of Trump’s ego, decided to mount a charm offensive. Downing St calculated that by keeping him on side and ensuring consistent contact, the PM would be able to direct his thinking. Trump is, by and large, influenced by the last person who spoke to him.
But Trump is also guided by the person who says what he wants to hear. Let’s just look at the example of his new best mate, Boris Johnson. In the run-up to the 2016 presidential election, the former Mayor said Trump’s remarks about the state of London showed “stupefying ignorance” that proved he was “clearly out of his mind” and was “frankly unfit to hold the office of president of the United States".
“I would invite him to come and see the whole of London and take him around the city - except I wouldn’t want to expose any Londoners to any unnecessary risk of meeting Donald Trump,” he added.
But while Foreign Secretary, Johnson, never afraid of facing both ways, was effusive about the Republican. In his Sun interview, Trump notes that Johnson “obviously likes me” and therefore declared him to be a great PM-in-waiting.
The other truth about Trump is that, ultimately, his respect for women, particularly women in power, is thin at absolute best. He speaks of how he tried to influence May’s approach to Brexit – can you imagine him doing that to Emmanuel Macron?
May has tried pandering, she has tried flattering his ego, she has held his hand through the difficult journeys, she has rolled out the red carpet. All this has come at a cost to her public image. And yet still Trump disrespects her and her government in this humiliatingly public manner.
If flattery fails, Trump only recognises one trait, strength. May now has to stand up to her US counterpart if she wants to gain any semblance of his respect. After all, keeping him close has got her nowhere. And a bit more is at stake than a free trade deal. This is about the position of Britain in the world, how we are viewed beyond these shores.
But more importantly, do we even want to sign a free trade deal with the United States right now? Trump has sparked the beginning of a trade war, repeatedly threatening to pull out of Nafta and pushing for further action against the European Union. He pays no attention to mutual interest – it is simply what he thinks is best for America. He has been more than transparent about his protectionist credentials.
There is no doubt that he would ask for significant concessions – be they regulatory or otherwise – in a deal with the UK. Are we prepared to be exploited just to put an American-themed cherry on the top of the Brexit cake?
Trump is not eternal. His presidency will last another two or six years at best. A free trade deal with a reciprocal, open United States – our closest ally – will come. For now, Commonwealth partners including Australia are knocking on the door looking to do business.
If Brexit really is the sunlit upland that those who support it claim, why put so much emphasis on a deal with the United States? We should not have to pander to an ally who, for the moment, does not have our best interests at heart.
May has tried the collegiate approach to Donald Trump. Now is the time to show him – and the world – what she’s really made of.
Seb Whale is Political Editor of The House magazine, PoliticsHome's sister title